An apt subtitle for Avenue Q might be Sesame Street grows up and gets a little twisted – and a lot of fun. This zany, irreverent musical, with its mixture of human and puppet characters, sends up everything from youthful angst and the search for meaning to love, sexual orientation, racism, and schadenfreude. The Pauper Players production of the Tony Award-winning musical is performed, directed, and produced entirely by University of North Carolina students or recent graduates* at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro. (If this production is any indication, these students have bright futures ahead of them.) In addition to being a pure delight, the show was polished and professional – and well worth scuttling any plans you might have for the weekend to make sure you see it before it closes.

The story features Princeton, a recent college grad, who sets the tongue-in-cheek tone of the show with the opening number, “What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?” Princeton has landed on the affordable but shabby Avenue Q after working his way down through the alphabet streets for an apartment where he can start his life as an adult. There, he meets a motley cast of characters: Kate Monster (puppet), an assistant kindergarten teacher; Brian and Christmas Eve (humans), an aspiring comic and Asian therapist, respectively, who are engaged to each other; roommates Rod, a Republican, and Nicky, a slacker (puppets); Trekkie Monster (puppet), a porn-surfing grouch; Lucy the Slut (puppet); and Gary Coleman (human), child-actor-turned-building-superintendent.

During the course of the show, Princeton searches for his purpose, Nicky tries to get Rod to come out of the closet, Christmas Eve wonders why she has no clients, and Kate Monster dreams of opening a school for monsters. The brilliance of the show lies in its ability to take these rather mundane topics, apply a large dose of slightly evil wit, and give a nod to the Sesame Street format – complete with puppets – at the same time. The song titles (which include “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “If You Were Gay,” and “The Internet is for Porn”) and the four-letter words let the audience know that this is a show for grownups, and yet the writers (music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty) keep it light, never descending into preachiness or becoming offensive.

This Pauper Players production of Avenue Q delivers on all counts. The actors, to a person, are top-notch performers; their characters, whether puppet or human, were totally believable and completely charming. It’s impossible to single out one actor, because they were all so strong. The vocals (directed by Alex Thompson) were astounding, as good as anything I’ve heard on a professional stage. Director Clare Shaffer (who also conceived the idea for the set) kept the pace of the show quick and light, and Courtney Tesh directed the rocking musical combo. Pauline Lamb’s choreography and Allison Farmer’s lighting both rose to the challenges of the small space and made the actors look great.

Special kudos go to puppet master Duncan Culbreth and the actors portraying puppet characters for the smooth handling of the puppets. One of the unusual things about Avenue Q is that the puppeteers are visible throughout, and there is no ventriloquism, so the audience watches both the puppet and the actor/puppeteer sing and deliver the character’s lines. It requires a willing suspension of disbelief, and somehow it works. (Personally speaking, I found it fascinating to watch.) In some cases, when the puppet requires two puppeteers, one of the actors simply works the puppet but has no lines. However, he/she still must become part of the overall character, including doing the choreography – no easy feat when you’re practically joined at the hip. For this to work, the actor/puppeteers must be extremely well rehearsed and completely confident in their presentation of both the puppets and the material. The Pauper Players were both.

The April 4 opening night performance of Avenue Q faced only two challenges. There was a slight set malfunction, and the band (located by default in front of the stage) overpowered the miked singers at times, both of which can be fixed. Otherwise, Avenue Q provided an evening of stellar performances and lots of laughs. Do yourself a favor and go.

Avenue Q continues through Monday, April 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.

*Here are the principals and their roles:
Mariah Barksdale – Gary Coleman
Lochlan Belford – Trekkie Monster, Bad Idea Bear
Kyle Conroy  – Princeton
Zachary Cook – Brian
Will Hawkins – Rod
Leila Kaji – Mrs. T, Bad Idea Bear, Hand
Annie Keller – Christmas Eve
Blayne Telling – Lucy the Slut
Matt Verner – Nicky
Brooke Wilson – Kate Monster